Minnesota Vikings: 4 Burning Questions the Vikings Must Answer in Week 3

Bob GarmanAnalyst ISeptember 19, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: 4 Burning Questions the Vikings Must Answer in Week 3

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    The Minnesota Vikings were surprisingly good in 2012. Coming off of a 3-13 campaign the year before, the Vikings fashioned a 10-6 record and grabbed a spot in the NFC playoffs.

    Coming into this season, fans' expectations were high. The team would start the year with a more seasoned Christian Ponder at the helm, a healthy Adrian Peterson and a trio of first-round draft picks.

    Even losing veterans Antoine Winfield and Percy Harvin didn't seem to hurt Minnesota. Both stars headed to Seattle, but neither has seen the field for the Seahawks. Winfield was cut and subsequently retired. Harvin required offseason surgery and may not play until December.

    However, things haven't gone well thus far for the Vikings. They are off to a 0-2 start, and both losses came to division opponents. Unless Minnesota can right its ship in a hurry, the playoffs will become a fading memory instead of an immediate goal.

    Why have things started out so poorly? There are a number of factors that haven't gone Minnesota's way. Click on to read four burning questions the Vikings must answer in Week 3. 

Time to Pull the Plug on Ponder?

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    One of the biggest question marks coming into the season was whether third-year quarterback Christian Ponder would prove himself worthy of franchise quarterback status.

    After two games, there still aren't any answers. Ponder played horribly in the season-opening loss to Detroit, committing three turnovers and essentially killing the Vikings' chances with a devastating first-half interception.

    Things didn't start off much better against Chicago. Again, Ponder threw a costly interception, this one returned for a touchdown. The Vikings lost to the Bears by one point, so the impact of that mistake can't be undersold. 

    In fairness, Ponder did have a solid second half against the Bears, leading the Vikings on three scoring drives (all three were field goals), but he simply cannot continue to make big mistakes and give the ball away if Minnesota is going be successful.

    Is Ponder's job on the line? The Vikings signed free-agent veteran Matt Cassel in the offseason, purportedly to provide Ponder with a seasoned backup. If things continue to go poorly, coach Leslie Frazier might decide to take his chances with Cassel.

    One possible bright spot is that Ponder seems to realize the error of his ways. In an interview with Ben Goessling of ESPN, Ponder put the blame for the Chicago loss squarely on his own shoulders.

    "Terrible play... Obviously, if we take away seven points, it's a different ballgame for them and for us. So I understand that I have to play better. I have to play four quarters of football and limit those mistakes."

    While it's admirable that Ponder is willing to step up and take responsibility, it would be better if he didn't make the mistakes in the first place. The Vikings don't need Ponder to win games for them. They only need him not to lose them.

    If Ponder's performance doesn't improve significantly against Cleveland on Sunday, it will be time to make a change before the season is lost.

Where Is Cordarrelle Patterson?

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    The first time Cordarrelle Patterson touched the ball for the Vikings in the preseason, he returned a kickoff 50 yards.

    Last Sunday, Patterson took the opening kickoff and roared 105 yards for a touchdown to get the Vikings off to a fast start against the Bears.

    In the first two games of the season, Patterson has been on the field for a total of 11 snaps, not counting special teams duties. After he had five snaps against Detroit in the season opener, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told the media that Patterson would see more action against Chicago. That much was true. Patterson got six snaps against the Bears.

    This is the guy the Vikings targeted after trading the disgruntled Percy Harvin to Seattle. He didn't come cheap, either. Minnesota GM Rick Spielman spent second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in April to assure that the Vikings would acquire the explosive Patterson.

    Doesn't it make sense that the coaching staff would want to see a return on that investment? The word on Patterson when he came out of Tennessee was that he was talented but raw. In limited action, he's flashed the talent. There hasn't been as much evidence of his inexperience.

    In a report by Judd Zulgad of 1500 ESPN, Frazier promised to resolve the situation. He told the assembled media:

    "We're going to get that rectified. "He definitely deserves to be on the field more. He's shown that in the few snaps he's gotten in these first two ball games...We want to get him on the field. He's one of our explosive players for sure. We see what he does when he gets the ball in his hands. We've got to find a way to get him on the field."

    Imagine if the Vikings had limited Adrian Peterson's touches in his first year. It's clear Patterson is one of the most explosive players in the league. The team gave up Percy Harvin and a bevy of draft picks to get him. It only makes sense to use him.

    If nothing else, Patterson poses enough of a threat that opposing defenses might have to stop stacking nine and 10 men on the line of scrimmage to hinder Peterson. 

    Even converted quarterback Joe Webb has seen more action than Patterson. Webb has seen 12 snaps this year. Any team that uses Joe Webb at receiver more than Cordarrelle Patterson deserves what it gets.

    Frazier sounded almost defensive when asked further questions about Patterson's role. "We're well aware of his talents," he said. "Even on the smoke screen, when we threw it out and he got 14 yards. We're well aware of his talents. He doesn't get lost. But we'll get it rectified."

    Here's hoping that Frazier and his staff do get it rectified. Their jobs may well depend on it.

Is Musgrave the Problem?

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    Is the play-calling too predictable?
    Is the play-calling too predictable?Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    A lot of things have gone wrong with the Vikings offense thus far in 2013. There have been too many turnovers, Adrian Peterson has had to struggle for every rushing yard, and the passing game has been inefficient at best.

    It's possible that all of these factors can be attributed to one source. That source is offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

    Certainly a lot of fans seem to think so. There's even a "Fire Bill Musgrave" page on Facebook. Currently, the page has more than 400 followers and hundreds of angry messages from Minnesota fans.

    Musgrave has, at best, a checkered record of success in his 16-year coaching career. He's made eight stops over that period of time and has suffered the ire of fans at just about every stop.

    While Ponder's play has been spotty at best, some fans and media mavens attribute most of the difficulties to Musgrave's "vanilla" play-calling. Most people who watch the Vikings regularly can safely predict most plays before the snap. If fans can see what's coming, NFL defenses can see it too.

    For a coach who is criticized for his generic play-calling, Musgrave is known for being a creative offensive mind, as noted by Bleacher Report's Arif Hasan. Musgrave did a good job of getting the versatile Percy Harvin the ball in innovative ways. 

    Like him or not, he was also the architect of the Minnesota running game that allowed Adrian Peterson to rush for more than 2,000 yards in 2012.

    Sadly, Musgrave's ingenuity seems to be on the wane. Explosive rookie Cordarrelle Patterson has only been on the field for 11 snaps in the Vikings' first two games. Newly acquired Greg Jennings hasn't been much of a factor thus far, and Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph has gotten relatively few targets.

    These are all things Musgrave can control. He has the responsibility for personnel and calling plays. It would be a simple matter to make sure Patterson touched the ball at least twice per quarter and that Jennings and Rudolph were each targeted six to eight times per game.

    If those factors were in play, defenses would be wary of stacking the line to stop Adrian Peterson. As it now stands, Peterson frequently sees eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage on every running down.

    Those who defend Musgrave say that he did what he did last year because the offense lacked weapons beyond Peterson once Harvin went down with an injury in Week 9. That excuse is wearing thin. Peterson continues to be amazing. Rudolph should be poised for a breakout year. Patterson is on the roster. Jarius Wright has shown flashes of big-play ability. 

    In addition, both Jennings and Jerome Simpson have been healthy this year, giving the Vikings a reliable starting pair of wide receivers for the first time since 2009. 

    The weapons are there. Musgrave has to demonstrate that he's willing to tailor his offense to the players he has available instead of trying to force the players to fit his scheme.

    There were signs that things might be changing in the Week 1 game against Detroit. Ponder completed two passes of more than 40 yards (both to Simpson) and tried passes of longer than 20 yards more than six times. Unfortunately, the team reverted to its more conservative approach in the Chicago game.

    The stats show what fans have been saying. Minnesota's offense is vanilla and subpar. The team ranks 20th in the NFL in yards per game. They're 20th in passing offense and 10th in rushing offense. It seems unthinkable that a team featuring Adrian Peterson is 10th in rushing. The team ranks eighth in scoring, but that number has been bolstered by a return touchdown and a defensive score. Without those two touchdowns, the Vikings' scoring offense would be tied for 22nd.

    It's a bit of a chicken-or-egg question. Is the offense stagnant because the players aren't executing? Or is the offense troublesome because the players can't execute poorly devised game plans? It's clear that the weapons are in place. It's time for Musgrave to take advantage. 

Do the Vikings Miss Felton More Than Winfield or Harvin?

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    Prior to the start of the 2013 season, many Vikings fans bemoaned the losses of wideout Percy Harvin and cornerback Antoine Winfield. A lot of people felt Minnesota made a mistake in letting two dynamic playmakers leave the team.

    Neither Harvin nor Winfield has seen the field in Seattle, so it might be safe to say the Vikings suffered a bigger loss when fullback Jerome Felton was suspended for the first three games of the year for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

    As mentioned on the previous slide, the Vikings, without Felton, feature the 10th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL after two games. The bulk of Peterson's production has come on two big runs. He dashed 78 yards for a touchdown on his first carry of the year, and he broke a 36-yarder against Chicago. Other than those two runs, Peterson has struggled to produce.

    With Felton paving the way last year, the Vikings had the second-best running game in the NFL. They led the league in yards per carry and were able to withstand the loaded fronts thrown up by opposing defenses. Last year, the team averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt. This year, that average is 4.1 yards.

    The same five men who started all 16 games in 2012 are starting now. The only difference is that Rhett Ellison and Zach Line are taking the reps at fullback. The line hasn't been great. Peterson frequently has to fight through defenders just to get back to the line of scrimmage. The only difference between last year and this year is the absence of Felton, so it seems reasonable to deduct that Felton's presence made Peterson's life easier.

    Felton will miss Sunday's game against Cleveland but should be back for the rest of the season following that contest. It will be interesting to see if Peterson's numbers improve dramatically once his lead blocker is back in action. 

Conclusions

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    So far, the season hasn't worked out the way Minnesota fans had hoped it would.

    Christian Ponder doesn't seem to be any more consistent than he'd been in his first two seasons. Explosive rookie Cordarrelle Patterson can't seem to get on the field. The offensive line has done a poor job of protecting Ponder and opening holes for Adrian Peterson. The play calling feels predictable and bland.

    Leslie Frazier has been quick to accept the blame for his team's slow start. He attributes the errors in execution to coaching mistakes and vows that those mistakes will be corrected.

    Vikings fans can only hope that it's that simple, or it's going to be a very long year.

    Have some questions of your own? Have the answer to anything you see here? Speak your mind in the comments section below.

     

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